How to Use a Charcoal Grill

Learn how to light and cook with a charcoal grill for fresh, home-grilled flavor

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Whether you’re camping out under the stars, serving hotdogs while tailgating, or simply entertaining in your back yard, charcoal grills are an easy, ideal way to serve up chargrilled flavor. This guide will teach you how to fire up the barbecue grill and get cooking in no time.

Tip: When cooking with any type of grill, periodically check the food temperature with a meat thermometer to ensure its internal temperature is high enough. 

Safety: When using lighter fluid, read the directions for using proper amounts and don’t ever spray onto a lit fire or hot coals. Take caution any time you are around fire and make sure the area is properly ventilated.

How to Light a Charcoal Grill

Cheaper than gas-powered grills, charcoal grills are portable and easy to use. There are several ways to light a charcoal grill, but the first step is always to remove the grate and open any vents. Once the coals are lit, replace the grate and close the lid to allow the grill to heat up for about 15 minutes. 

Start a charcoal grill using a chimney starter:

  • Place the empty chimney starter on the lower (charcoal) grate, and pour in charcoal. 
  • For low-heat foods or to use the grill as a smoker, fill the chimney ¼ of the way full. For burgers or hot dogs, fill ½ to ¾ of the way up. For high temperatures, completely fill the chimney with charcoal. 
  • Place an accelerant like lighter cubes or crumpled newspaper at the base of the starter. 
  • Light the accelerant. 
  • Once the top coals begin to turn grey with ash, pour them onto the charcoal grate.


Start a charcoal grill using lighter fluid:

  • Arrange the charcoal in a pile on the charcoal grate. This will retain the heat and speed up heating process.
  • Squirt lighter fluid on top of the coals and light immediately. Use 1.6 ounces of lighter fluid per pound of charcoal in your grill.


Start a charcoal grill by lighting the charcoal directly:

  • Arrange the charcoal in a pile or pyramid on the charcoal grate and light. If using a bag of charcoal designed to be directly lit in the grill instead of emptying, light all four corners of the bag.


How to Cook with a Charcoal Grill

Before getting the BBQ started, clean the grill grates using a grill brush, then coat the grates with a grill spray or vegetable oil. Repeat this process once you’re done grilling and remember to close the vents. 

Once you’ve lit the coals and they’ve been warming for some time, check their color. The coals are ready for cooking when they turn grey with ash. 

One of the keys to getting great results on a charcoal grill is to properly arrange the lit coals. When spreading the charcoal, remember that the thinner the layer of coals, the less heat they’ll provide and for less time. A thick and condensed layer will burn hotter and last longer.

Safety: When arranging the coals, leave a small area without coals to help reduce flare ups.

  • When grilling with direct heat, light the coals and spread them evenly in the grate area using a spatula or tongs 
  • To cook with indirect heat, place the lit coals on roughly half the charcoal grate area. The food can be seared over the coals and then moved to the empty area for slower, indirect cooking.


Charcoal Grilling Tips

  • Place a pan of warm water in the cool area of the grill to help regulate temperature and keep food from drying out during cooking. 
  • If a smokey flavor is desired, soak a few handfuls of wood chips for 30 minutes and place them on top of the hot coals before cooking.
  • Regulate the grill’s heat by adjusting the airflow using the dampers located at the top and bottom of the grill. Open the bottom damper to raise the temperature, and open the upper damper to lower it. 
  • Add more coals if manipulating the dampers doesn’t increase the temperature enough. 
  • If your grill doesn’t have a built in thermometer, place a surface thermometer on the cooking grate. 
  • Check the food periodically with a meat thermometer to ensure it’s cooked to the proper internal temperature.